Archive for March, 2010

How To Wire Up A Beauty Or A Beast

March 26, 2010

  In the house on her parent’s farm, Georgia O’Keefe was born November 15, 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.  She was not taken outside during the cold, dark, and long upper Midwestern winter.  Spring did arrive and with it, verdancy, warmth, and the color of the sun.      

  Georgia was carried out and “placed on a handmade patchwork quilt spread on the new grass and propped up by pillows.  Those very first moments of seeing in the brilliant sunlight became indelibly etched in her memory: She precisely remembered the quilt’s patterns of flowers on black and tiny red stars…*

  I remembered that while reading a review of a new book: The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik**.  O’Keefe was exceptional (duh!) in that virtually no memories form in most babies’ minds until about age 5.

  Their brains are different.  The part (prefrontal lobe) that filters out distractions and thus enables ‘internally driven attention’ is not yet fully formed.  “What rouses them is what is in front of their eyes, the first burst of information about cause and effect in the physical world”.

  Open to all stimuli and unable to shut any out, they are in a sense more conscious than are adults.  Gopnik compares “the lantern consciousness of childhood to the spotlight consciousness of ordinary adult attention”.  Very young brains require such copious amounts of neurotransmitters to process this inundation that they require relatively higher doses of anesthesia before surgery.

  As I know I’ve mentioned many times in this space, at birth the human brain has more connections among its 100 billion neurons as there are stars in the universe.  Some strengthen and some wither in a process labeled neural Darwinism by Gerald Edelman***.  Those connections in receipt of stimuli flourish and those that don’t disappear. 

  So in a very real sense what one does not see, hear, feel, etc as a baby one never will.  If, for some reason there is a patch on an eye over a crucial brief period neural connections will degenerate rendering it irreversibly blind.  Buckminster Fuller had poor vision, but a grand capacity for spatial visualization that he believed arose from early manipulation of blocks and other solid shapes.

  Similarly, “although empathy does seem to be innate… the flourishing of empathy is not guaranteed”.  Which brings me to Swiss child psychologist Alice Miller.  In her book For Your Own Good, Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence we read her take on the provenance of Hitler’s depravity.  She wrote “I have no doubt that behind every crime a personal tragedy lies hidden… every persecutor was once a victim”. 

  Ten years or so before Edelman developed his theory of neuronal selection Miller described the structure of the constellated narrative.  And it had nothing to do with innate drives.  Hitler’s youth was itself unmitigated horror.  He was beaten, humiliated, and demeaned by his parents while being commanded to love and respect those who might treat him thus.

  “My pedagogy is hard.  What is weak must be hammered away…I want the young to be violent and cruel… They must be able to bear pain… There must be nothing weak or gentle about them… The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from their eyes…”  Adolf Hitler.

  Most of Miller’s work addresses life after age five and actually gives us hope.  She holds that if a youth has an opportunity for just one positive connection, whatever might have characterized those first years, a good life is possible.  “The human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.” 

*Portrait of an Artist by Laurie Lisle
**What Babies Know and We Don’t by Michael Greenberg; New York Review of Books March 11, 2010
***Edelman won the Medicine Nobel in 1972 for his description of the
immune system.  His theory of neuronal development remarkably, but I guess logically, parallels his earlier work.  
****Painting on top is “Spring by Georgia O’Keefe from the Art Institute in Chicago.
*****Photo is of a young Adolf Hitler
******Painting at bottom is “Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keefe from the Art Institute in Chicago. 

Hurrah for Stromness

March 20, 2010

  You’re listening to “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies.  Written for piano, I came across this version on a classical guitar CD I picked up for inspiration.  I’ve ordered the sheet music so that I can put it under my pillow for the homeopathy method of music instruction.

   Stromness, counting some 1500 residents, is the second largest town on what’s called ‘Mainland’ of the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland.  In the seventies significant uranium deposits were discovered nearby and Margaret Thatcher was in favor of their development.  Locals were not. 

  From the photos above we can see that mining of the stuff would have had devastating impact.  Davies wrote the music as part of his ‘Yellowcake Review’ in protest*.  It’s an achingly emotional recapitulation of a cerebral journey over and around the island. 

  With the first few notes, one is enjoined, soon nearly overwhelmed at the realization of what could come to pass, and then hesitates briefly to gather strength.  How could such a thing be contemplated?  Then onward with determination to experience it all in case the philistines hold sway. 

  The Orcadians’ campaign was successful and the uranium lies undisturbed.  Hurrah! Now, each time I listen to the short piece, I’m pervaded with the fragile good fortune of our place on our planet. I’d be fascinated to hear if any MPs or Thatcher heard this music during consideration of the issue.  Wonder if a savage beast was thereby soothed.  Wouldn’t have been the first time that art inflected political discourse.

  All of that having had transpired, it is, uhm, interesting to note that some years later a string arrangement of “Farewell to Stromness” was performed at the blessing of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla.  With all of the myriad back stories behind that event, I think I’d have chosen differently.  Music is a language, and maybe it’s me, but somehow something seems to have been lost in that translation. 

*We became familiar with the term ‘yellowcake’ during the Valerie Plame affair.  It is an ironic trivialization of both the substance as well as the proposed excavation in the Orkney Islands.

Sursum Corda

March 12, 2010

  Like De Tocqueville, the fact that director Peter Weir hails from another land gives him objectivity toward our county that one born in the USA would not have.  His take, in the film “Witness”, has the sacred and profane of America revolving around each other like a binary star system.  Violence and purity orbit around their common center of gravity like a black hole and bright star.  When gas spins off from one to the other bad shit happens.

  Early in the film a young wide-eyed Amish boy witnesses a horrific murder in the restroom of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.  With his assistance, Detective John Book uncovers sordid high level police corruption and gets seriously wounded in the process.  Their escape from urban grit takes them to an Amish community in rural Lancaster County.

  At the edge of death, Book recovers under the care of the wary Amish and is soon asked to work off his debt.  He puts on a tool belt and enters a stream of men and women flowing toward a barn raising for a newly married couple.

  Weir once said that his goal in filmmaking was to evoke as deep an emotional response as can great music.  In this segment, the music and motion combine to far far more than the sum of the parts.  They conjure up the image (in this mind anyway) of peasants raising Chartres from the fields of France up toward heaven, souls all aflutter. 

  Indeed, this part of the film could even be read as the last stage of Book’s recovery – a near death experience.  Under an incredibly beautiful soft white light men work serenely together, knowingly pass hammer or beam or refreshment on to the next, unasked.  Women draw from the bounty of the communal acreage to create a sumptuous shared repast. 

  Unfortunately (for Book), the music stops, dirty cops appear, Satan gets his due, and Book falls off his cloud back to earth.  It’s not his time yet and he has to leave.  We’re dang pleased he got to visit though and will forever be moved by the memory.*

*Amazing, isn’t it that the language spoken in the clip doesn’t  really affect its impact?  (Though I’ll admit if I can find it in English, I’ll switch…)

Drug Free, I Promise!

March 5, 2010

  At about dusk one night not long ago, I was closing the gate at my office and had a hallucination that took over my consciousness completely – if only for a moment.  It was of my wife at home in the kitchen.

  She was wrestling a rarely used vessel and an associated implement from the dusty far reaches of a deep cupboard.  It had been a wedding present and I don’t think it’d seen the light of day since the birth of our first child nearly thirty years ago.  It soon dissolved, I secured the gate, and drove home.

  Just inside the back door of our house, I gasped when I saw that wife was using the vessel from my vision and had to have gone through those exact motions at the moment I saw them.  I asked what in the world had induced her to procure that setup to which she responded that she had been looking for something else, came upon it, and decided to use it instead. 

  Holy dogs, it wasn’t like I’d flashed a winning lottery number or been visited by divine guidance (or retribution for that matter) but, whatever, it was beyond coincidence.  Tha occurrence and others similar came to mind when reading the “Best Ideas of the Year” bit in the last issue of the New York Times Magazine that year.  It was about a forthcoming book entitled Extraordinary Knowing by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer.

  Ms. Mayer was a psychologist and professor at UC Berkley.  Her eleven year old daughter’s harp had been stolen and they were desperate for its return.  Weeks went by with no leads when a friend suggested they avail themselves of the services of a dowser.

  Skeptical, but, “well why not?”, she contacted the American Society of Dowsers who referred her to one in Arkansas.  She called and after a pause the gentlemen told her that the harp was still in the area and asked her to send him a map of it.  The map was soon returned with a location marked upon it.  “Not good enough for a search warrant” said the police so Ms. Mayer decided to post photos of the harp on telephone poles around that neighborhood.

  Days later a phone call led to the return of the instrument and a changed Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer.  She began an exploration of the “inexplicable powers of the human mind” and first found, to her amazement, that several eminent colleagues at Berkeley had had related experiences, but were loathe to discuss for fear of possible harm to their professional reputations.

  Her investigation is filled with fascinating anecdotes, history, psychology, neuroscience, and quantum physics.  She suggests that extraordinary intuition is “quintessentially characterized by its random non repeatable quality and its absolute dependence on its highly idiosyncratic deeply personal capacities and dispositions of the knower…”. 

  An adept told her that: “Our minds resist intuitive knowing.  Once you learn to relax that resistance, you can start to reclaim intuition from its suppression by the rational mind.  The more you work with it, the more remarkable your knowing becomes.  You free the receptive state from it armoring by the ego.  You learn to live closer to receptivity.”

  If there was ever a reason to clear up neuroses, this had got to be it.  Could maybe tune into something really cool.